Shelley Popke feels a kind of kinship with people who come into the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum looking for stories and insights into their high-country forebears.
Popke is familiar with the desire to dive into the past, to trace family history and make surprise discoveries in where the stories lead. She earned a master’s degree in history at the University of Colorado Denver’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, using a distant relative’s memoirs, handwritten in spiral notebooks, as the springboard for her thesis.
Popke completed her master’s in two parts, sandwiching several years as Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum store manager and buyer between the years she completed her CU Denver coursework and thesis. “My emphasis was Russian and central European history,” she said. “I did one of those ‘everything-but-the-thesis’ approaches.”
The Museum, where Popke returned in 2015, this time to serve as executive director, is a repository of history of the Gunnison Valley. The museum is located in a building that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and it’s a regular stopping point for tourists and history buffs alike.
“We get a lot of people who are interested in researching things about their family,” she said. “In that way, I feel the work I did for my master’s was perfect for this position.”
Stories of gunfire and gulags
There aren’t many firsthand accounts of life in central Europe in the turbulent years between World Wars I and II, but Popke’s great-grandmother chronicled the good and the bad – from placid days down on the farm to the shattering trials of gunfire and gulags. “It’s a very dramatic story of people going through incredible amounts of violence and being shipped off to different prison camps,” she said.
Popke’s thesis was part historical observation of life in that time, 1915-1935, and part study of nationalistic policy. Her great-grandmother was an ethnic German living in Russia. “Both the Russian empire and Soviet Union were comprised of various ethnic nationalities and they had different approaches of how they dealt with those nationalities in policy and practice,” she said.
She took a hands-on approach to her thesis, traveling to Russia and Ukraine. The hand-written memoirs served as a guide as Popke visited places her great-grandmother lived.
“It’s really about personal history – how you preserve it, how you share it, and how you connect with it,” she said. “That’s what we do with the local families around Crested Butte. We have documents like photos, oral histories and other records from longtime residents of the valley. I think that’s why this job is such a good match for me.”
Academia pays dividends
At CU Denver, Popke studied under Mary Schaeffer Conroy, PhD, an expert in the politics and health care policy of Imperial Russia. Popke said the strong writing and critical thinking skills instilled by Conroy and the History Department pay regular dividends in her position, where she “wears eight hats.”
Popke is pleased to note that her grant-writing efforts yielded a $200,000 grant from the History Colorado-State Historical Fund that will pay for the first phase of a building rehabilitation. She hopes that a follow-up grant will see the full renovation project through. “I think that’s something that comes out of academics,” she said. “Being able to write well and make a good argument is invaluable to being able to secure grant funding.”
Popke’s fondness for history makes her cognizant and respectful of what came before. That’s why she treasures each day in the old building that sits on Elk Avenue and now houses the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum. In past incarnations, the structure served as a hardware store, a gas station, and a blacksmith shop. “Everybody stopped by this building over the last 60 years to get gas or a fishing license or piece of hardware or a hat or something,” she said. “So it’s really cool the role the building played in town.”
‘Interact with everybody’
And that goes for the executive director of the museum as well. Nearly everybody in town knows Popke and they aren’t shy about stopping her for a chat – anytime, anywhere. “You interact with everybody. The post office is a block-and-a-half away. If I’m going there I should plan for a half hour to 45 minutes because of all the people I’ll meet on the way.”
Popke’s husband, who introduced her to Crested Butte, and teenage daughter both love living in the mountain community of 1,500 residents. This summer the museum and the Popke family are getting ready to celebrate the 40-year reunion of folks – some might refer to them as hippies – who came to the valley in the 1970s. Popke looks forward to these gatherings because they are a great opportunity to collect more stories.
In her line of work, she occasionally hears offhand jokes about liberal arts degrees. But for Popke, who has a bachelor’s degree in literature and a master’s in history, they’ve made all the difference.
“You need those skills and subject expertise – and strong writing skills too – to be fully successful in a field like this,” she said.